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How We Redefined 'Timeouts' (and Minimized Tantrums)

Gemma Hartley is a freelance writer with a BA in writing from The University of Nevada, Reno. She lives in Reno with her husband, three young kids, an awesome dog and a terrible cat.

My kid wasn't learning from timeouts — so we changed them

My 6-year-old son has always had very strong emotions. His tantrums can easily switch from an outburst to a state of emotional crisis. For a long time, we relied on traditional timeouts, but as time went on, I realized they weren't really working for us. Timeouts were used mostly as punishment for poor behavior: the yelling, kicking and destruction that followed being told no or having his actions called out as bad.

When I would put him on timeout after he was riled up, it only seemed to make things worse. He couldn't calm down. He didn't know how to.

Yet I couldn't simply let him take out his rage where he stood. He is one of three kids, and being separated during these times of emotional meltdowns is a must. I wanted to help him work through his emotions, to have the time and space to cool down when emotions were running high, but the truth was, I had ruined timeouts by using them as punitive punishment. I didn't know how to redefine it into something positive. Something that might actually help him.

I attempted to tweak the name and call it "time away," but he didn't make any distinction, even when I explained that the time was for him to have the opportunity to calm down without being in trouble. We tried counting backward (which sometimes helped) and sitting with him, but ultimately I needed to do a complete overhaul of timeout and turn it into something completely new.

Now we've finally redefined timeout as something positive. It is less about time and space and more about taking a moment to exercise awareness — which sometimes means leaning into all the bad emotions instead of sweeping them under the rug. Incorporating meditation and a whole lot of patience, we've been able to redirect all that anger into a learning experience on regulating emotions.

Here are three ways we've turned timeout from punishment and into self-discipline.

1. Breathing buddies: Instead of saying we're going to take a timeout or time away, I will often ask my son to come play a game with me, just me and no one else. The game? Breathing buddies. We lie on the floor and place stuffed animals on our stomachs, and I guide him through meditative breathing. His focus is on the movement of the stuffed animal, but the breathing helps him better regulate his emotions. I haven't found a quicker method to get us out of rage mode.

2. Feelings check-in: After breathing our way out of anger, we generally do a feelings check-in. I used to try to do this part first, but when his emotions are that out of hand, it's hard to convey anything productively. Acknowledging his emotions by repeating them back to him ("Yes, I understand that made you feel angry. Being angry doesn't feel good,") before walking him through the actions and consequences that got us here in the first place (like screaming in your sister's face because she took the toy you were playing with) makes it easier for us to come to a place of understanding.

3. Hug it out: A lot of the time, the most important thing my kid is looking for when his emotions are unstable is reassurance. He wants to know he's still good. He wants to know he's still loved. And nothing does that quite like a nice long hug. I usually give some affirming words before he has to go apologize to whomever he's wronged, and we're able to move through the rest of the day without feeling like I've simply reset a bomb to go off at a later time.

Instead of going to his room to cool off (which would never happen anyway), taking this time away to meditate together and reconnect gives us a way to move forward without resentment or burying the negative. It doesn't get rid of the outbursts, but it helps him move through them with a greater sense of control — which makes a meditative approach well worth it.

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